County quandary

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By Roger Snodgrass

The job of county government is to answer hard questions with the help of and on behalf of the community.

One hard question now emerging is how much to spend on a slew of projects that are coming to a head. And more precisely, how can reasonable limits on spending be determined before it is too late?At the end of the first full year that the $2 billion annual laboratory budget was largely subject to gross receipts taxes, Los Alamos County now faces the prospect of a substantial amount of borrowing and spending.Some of it, perhaps all of it, may be wanted and needed, but how much is too much to bite off all at once?The Big Windfall from the change in the laboratory's status from nonprofit to profit-making was never quite acknowledged as a big windfall.Why? Because it was hard to believe that it was really happening and hard to know how long it would last. And then, if it had been greeted as a big windfall, it would have been the object of neighborhood envy. Or worse, it could have fueled an unsustainable spending spree.According to our back-of-the-envelope calculations, county councilors are now looking at the prospect of approving well over $100 million-worth of investments next year.On the current account, we see right off the bat $65 million to be sunk in the Airport Basin project, where county government will centralize its workshops and maintenance and storage facilities.The West Jemez Bypass could be $12-14 million, including the intersection. The new Judicial Police/Jail Complex along with the burden of replacing or repairing the Municipal Building has a combined ballpark estimate of $40 million.Add these fairly crude calculations together and we are easily over $100 million.Then, there are some important incidentals in view like the new skate park, if further consultations really lead to something definite.Finally, there are other expenses still unknown, like potential infrastructure and cleanup costs for developing the Trinity Site, for example, and the new ones that will crop up as a matter of course.None of this hypothetical expense even includes the new plans for developments in White Rock.The practical problem, as Councilor Nona Bowman pointed out recently is which comes first, a budget or a spending decision?The council will be reviewing its long-range financial plan at their next meeting and the FY2009 budget hearings will begin in April.Here are some obvious suggestions.Now is the time to begin thinking very clearly about what is really needed. We must understand our needs, have them assessed, reviewed and prioritized.Then, we should have a budget that reflects and takes into account the uncertainties in the design and planning process for those needs, so that we have a clear sense of the range that each project might or ought to have.Finally, those needs should be stacked up alongside income and revenue projections to see what can be done sooner, what can be done sooner or later, and what may not get done at all.A dedicated commitment by all of us not to entertain those bright and shiny things that keep coming up or whizzing by would be very helpful during this process.